taking Communion, and other subversive acts

This weekend, I had a totally unscheduled Sunday morning.  That’s become a rare thing when I’m at home, and one which—oddly—means a decision about where to worship.  Lately, I tend to take these “free” Sundays and either visit a local emergent Christian church or my old ELCA stomping grounds, mainly so I can take Communion.*

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Truth, which I have mentioned before: this feels sneaky.  I’m not sure if internal ethical struggle is innate in my personality, or if this is based on a misguided sense of denominational expectations . . . or if I am responding to actual denominational expectations, perceived indirectly, but accurately.

Regardless, one of my goals for the next few years is to find peace and balance around my own self-care of the soul.  For me, for now—and for the foreseeable future—that includes the Christian rituals that call me back to my best self, grounding me more firmly in my body, yet fixing my attention more compassionately outside of it.

Other than prayer, which is highly portable and available individually, I most yearn for Communion and for the Kyrie–the ritual confession and forgiveness of sins.  It’s not a matter of needing a larger Christian context, I don’t think–I would partake of these elements in my home church, and I have, gratefully, when that’s been a choice.  It’s just that, as part of my deeper spiritual practices, an annual memorializing of these rituals isn’t enough for me.

So now, realizing that I’ve spent years waiting for the desires of my heart and the realities of my church to meet in the middle, one task is to acknowledge the obvious: an intersection of my Christian-based ritual needs and the practices of my UU church is not an achievable goal.  In many ways, I have always known this, and I wouldn’t turn my UU church into something that it is not, even if that were within my power.  But I also don’t want to wish that I were different—what I want, in sacrament as in so many other areas, is to go deeper in my faith: to challenge myself to connect with what matters, and to articulate it where that’s helpful.

Thus, I find myself returning to this question of cloak-and-dagger Christianity, and wondering: why the guilt?  Is secrecy necessary?  I don’t know anyone who “sneaks” to yoga, thinks very carefully about whether to wear Buddha beads to UU worship, or feels like a visit to the local Zen center might somehow indicate disloyalty to their UU faith.  Yet my own desire to make the Lord’s Supper part of my Sunday does feel a bit like I’m two-timing my church. And perhaps, in a sense, I am.  I have no choice, in that they’re both churches.  Scheduled opposite one another. With the rituals in question available in one, and not in another.

What’s a Christ-smitten, UU-dedicated girl to do?  I don’t know. Suggestions welcome.  For myself, I’ve tried to imagine, especially lately as I think about what it would mean to really claim and connect with this ritual, what it might look like to truly make Communion an option in the UU context. One thought: what if there were a bread and wine table somewhere in the building, not once a year, but once a week?  What if we made it so that those of us so inclined could stop by, do our thing, offer bread to one another, pray individually or together?  This time of ritual and reflection, done carefully, might take 10 or 15 minutes; participants might then simply begin, continue with, or rejoin other events of the morning.

On the “Christian” side of this equation, this obviously wouldn’t work for someone with a Catholic approach to the sacrament.  However, it seems unlikely that Christian orthodoxy tries to make a home within UU often, if ever–from what I have observed of UU Christianity, a DIY communion ritual could be a fit for the majority of us.  As for my non-Communing fellow congregants, what might this mean for them?  I was tempted for a moment to assert that the possibility of ritual inclusiveness would change no part of the worship experience of anyone who chose not to participate.  But that’s almost certainly not true, so a question: how might something like this affect others?  What might the presence of bread and wine and a greater awareness that there are practicing Christians among our number change at our church?  What might this challenge?

As I reflect on all of this on a personal level, I am also wrestling with the theological and historical underpinnings of Christian ritual, and Communion in particular.  This is academic—I took three classes last month at Meadvile Lombard, the first of which was African American Humanism.  (I decided that if I were really going to open myself to this experience, I might as well start with what would challenge me, and just reading the title of this class made me feel like a stranger in a strange land.)  The course was one of the most challenging and thought-provoking I’ve ever taken, and I am currently working on a paper about framing communion within “strong humanism” as outlined by my professor (and UU theologian) the Rev. Dr. Anthony Pinn.  Thus, I have been reading–and reading, and reading–about breaking bread together, on our knees and not, and reflecting on what our embrace or rejection of this ritual might mean for us as a liberal faith.

Things I’m discovering: a Christian vision of Communion as a subversive, action-inspiring, and human-focused ritual does exist—it has existed for millennia, and has adherents today.  Again, to be clear: this more human-centered view has Christian adherents.  And also, the familiar, comfortable ritual that brings me so much peace and connection hasn’t always been such a show.  It used to be more humble.  It used to be more real.

There are many great treatises on the history and theology of the Lord’s Supper; I’m happy to provide some resources for further reading if this excites anyone besides yours truly.  For now, though, I’m going to attempt only to provide a bit of context within modern popular culture, through a reflection that Rev. William Willimon, of the United Methodist Church, shares in his book Sunday Dinner: Reflecting on the Lord’s Supper:

[Previously, congregations were seated] at tables, and had a meal which looked and tasted like a meal.  The custom of using individual pressed white tasteless wafers is an extension of medieval preoccupations with the bread as a holy, untouched, spotless portion of Christ’s body.  Over the years both the glasses and the wafers got smaller until the church seemed to have a make-believe meal without food.

Eucharist

Willimon continues:

I finally said “enough is enough” a couple of years ago when I read of a man who . . . has begun marketing a product for those in a hurry.  He produces airtight packets which contain a crackerlike pellet in one compartment and two grams of grape juice in another compartment—a disposable, self-contained, eat-on-the-run Lord’s Supper—“This is my body packaged for you.”  There you have it.  The last hindrance to totally self-contained, self-centered religion is removed . . . Now, thanks to unit packaging, we need never come into contact with or be touched by another human being again.  Just when you thought modern life had depersonalized the gospel to the uttermost, we have another breakthrough—Communion without communion!

And in reflecting upon this, I realized something: that in retreating, for the love of safe ritual and the comfort of what is familiar, to a church not my own, one where I don’t really speak to anyone and one where I incur no obligations–I think I especially love that part– I, too am partaking of Communion without communion.  And what, really, is the value of that?  There is much academic and religious discussion of what “Do this in remembrance of me” might have meant, but I have yet to see an argument that the aspect of gathered community is irrelevant.  That joining together as one, signified by the single loaf of bread from which pieces are shared, is an insignificant part of the ritual.  That I might justifiably avoid what provokes my soul, week after week, for a drive-through wafer and wine experience.

Yep, convicted again.  And so, finally, I chose yesterday to commune rather than to Commune.  On that day, it was the right decision; I got what I needed, if not some of what I wanted, and I helped others to meet their needs as well.

And that, friends, is why we call it the beloved community.

This post could end here.  That would be convenient, but ultimately unhelpful—because the questioning and internal struggle do not end here.  In fact, they simply do not end.  This summer I have discovered that learning about, and indeed, being open to, the powerful messages of humanism neither erased my own theology nor made my questions about it less urgent.  Similarly, this “personal convenience vs. community” struggle will go on in my heart, no matter how I name or explore each side.

This process is a wrestling match, to be sure, but that’s different from a battle: there will not be a “winner.”  Any success will be incremental and personal: gradually, I will develop the strength and patience to truly hold a sense of “both” in a polarizing situation—to simply accommodate what will not be reconciled.  And from there, I might look for creative ways to serve needs more fully, and more beautifully.  It’s hard to think of something more Christian . . . or more humanist . . . than that.

And in the meantime: it’s a serious pain in the ass.  And thus I’m glad that, in this particular case, there is potentially wine involved.

j

*I generally write “communion” in the lower case, even where I’m referring to high-church ritual.  In this post, however, I am following Christian theological convention in capitalization.  My intention in this context is to highlight the distinction, as drawn by Rev. Willimon as quoted in this post, between the ritual act (“Communion”) and the connection with community (“communion”) that may or may not accompany it.

7 thoughts on “taking Communion, and other subversive acts

  1. There are many colleagues who have beautiful communion rituals….Earl Holt, Mark Bellentini, Daniel Budd, Janne and Rob Eller-Issacs to name a few (in addition to the Communion book published many years ago and very useful) and they have used these rituals in their congregations….check it out. And as I mentioned in our class, I hope to have a communion service at Meadville sometime in the near future using our communion silver! Wanna help?

  2. I wonder — don’t know specific history — about the loss of communion in the UU process to be not only post-Christian (of which I am a proud and willing member), but to be inclusive as well (for the two, though related, are distinct). Here you write about humanism and the ability to reframe communion as a ritual with integrity even for those who do not hold Jesus to be the divine son of a non-existent god, and that speaks to one stream of inclusion. I wonder about the reactive stream of disavowing the ritual because it’s “too high church” and has been used as a weapon of exclusion by some clergy/lay leaders in some places (and this was my first introduction to communion — as a weapon of withholding). I also wonder about its removal as a real way to make our congregations not churches, to be welcoming beyond the Christian ritual. As incomplete as this has been in many ways (still Sunday mornings, still sermon-focused, still in buildings built by Christans, etc.), and as over-reactive as this has been in many ways (Christians feeling the need to be sneaky based on real implicit or explicit judgment/hostility), I wonder about its fading away (or active removal) as a gesture of making room for non-Christian engagement in our congregations. Besides having a cross on view, few things say “Christian” more than communion — even if it’s open table. I wonder how its absence makes our space more welcome to non-Christians, particularly Jews in our congregations. Rightly or wrongly, if there had been communion at my UU Society when I joined, I would have had a harder time (now I wouldn’t, but that’s individual evolution). I like the idea of congregations engaging reclaiming deep ritual in service of individual and collective spiritual practice and yet I feel wary about it being communion. I, too, will continue to consider what that means and why. Am so glad you added to this public conversation!

  3. Pingback: Katie Goes to Mass ‹ Katie Casey

  4. Does your UU congregation have a chapter of the UU Christian Fellowship? If not, and you think or know there are other cloak-and-dagger Christians, you could explore starting one (http://www.uuchristian.org/) and offer communion regularly through that, in weekly meetings and/or sponsoring a table as you mention (LOVE that idea) and/or leading a UU Christian service for your congregation now and again. FWIW, and it may not be all that comforting, this seems to be a common UU struggle, not just one in your area. I’m not Christian, but my wife is, and I struggle with the lack of welcome I see for Christianity in our congregations. I also struggle because of my own LGBT advocacy work: In my area, we have a lot of LGBT visitors who have been unable to be welcomed as LGBT in Christian churches who in turn by the way, I love the way you described that even as I loathe the reason you need visit our church looking for welcome but are de facto expected to be openly LGBT and not Christian. It makes me sad because it’s not in line with my read of UU principles, and I know we are losing out both by not walking our talk and by missing out on all the awesome people who do not feel welcomed. One more thought: The UU church you attend is YOUR church, too, so don’t be afraid to speak your truth and invite your fellow congregants back to communion with our UU principles.

  5. I have never attended a church that was affiliated with the UUA, but I have been reading a great deal of the blogging and writing about this issue, and I wonder if this represents a sort of breaking point for UU principles. No religious movement can be absolutely inclusive, for by changing to include one group of people (people outside Christianity) you alienate another group (those who wish to associate with distinctive Christian communities). UUism is, one way or another, a product of a Christian history, and I would still call it Protestant even if it’s not Christian–it’s just taking Protestant principles to one logical extreme. What I wonder is whether an organization that has moved to the extent that most of its own history is a source of shame rather than a rich resource can maintain its strength as a religious institution.

    This is all the ramblings of a purely outside observer, but as a Christian Unitarian who is currently attending a UCC, I think this is a problem to be reckoned with.

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